Two years ago, in a blog post called "The Perils Of Serialization," I wrote, "There are some things that television will always do better than movies, such as building characters and plots over long stretches of time, and playing out premises in different permutations. But it's still rare to find a TV series that works as a complete, seamless work of art, with no dead spots or false starts." The main thrust of my argument back then was that because most shows have to adjust on the fly, and alter characters and storylines based on the whims of actors, network suits and fan outcry, the serialized TV format will always a hard time rising to the level of great art.
But I acknowledge now that there are exceptions. The Wire just finished telling one long story, meticulously planned-out. And quite a few shows have managed to cobble together whole seasons that were nearly flawless, or even just a few strong weeks in a row (which isn't necessarily that easy to do). Still, by and large, TV remains an episode-to-episode proposition. If you're looking for thoroughly cohesive long-form storytelling, you're better off putting down the remote and picking up a book.
I've been watching Lost in week-to-week, episode-to-episode mode since the show premiered in fall '04, and like a lot of fans, I've suffered through the lulls and enjoyed the highs–many of which have felt even higher because of those lulls. But I have friends who've been patient enough to wait for Lost on DVD, and they've told me that it's a much more satisfying to consume the show in big chunks, since the bad moments don't linger on the palate so long when they're chased by the good moments. So, flush with the excitement that the stellar Season Four had been generating, I started my "flashbackin'" project, watching the Season One, Two and Three DVD sets in between new Season Four episodes. The purpose? To see if Lost holds up well as one long story. The verdict? Sort of.
As I finished up Season Three this week what struck me the strongest–aside from a sudden urge to start re-watching Season Four–is how well the series flows. Sometimes Lost gets too dark, or too mystical, or too two-fisted, but by and large, the flawed parts are consistent with the kind of show Lost has been from the start. And the same is true of the amazing parts. The same people who brought you "Walkabout" in Season One also brought you "The Other 48 Days" in Season Two, "Greatest Hits" in Season Three and "The Constant" in Season Four. And more besides. Quality control on this show has stayed relatively high.
But just because the tone has stayed fairly even over the course of the past four years doesn't mean that Lost is that rare "novel on film" that so many TV buffs long for. There's just too much about the show that's fitful in the way TV inevitably becomes. Characters get squandered as the cast grows. Promised resolutions end up asking more questions than they answer. And while Lost does a better job than most of letting plotlines play out rather than rushing them, to necessitate that kind of deliberate pace many episodes consist of little more than people walking from one place to another.
There's a good chance that when Lost completes its run, it's going to stand as one of the greatest achievements of sustained storytelling that the television medium has ever produced. The writers will have told one long story with a beginning, middle and end (plus plenty of backstory from before the beginning), rich in eclectic characters and resounding themes. And yet it'll still be TV, designed and built to be consumed in individual units of varying quality.
So maybe it's time to stop talking in terms of "the perils of serialization" and start considering episodic storytelling as TV's special quality, to be embraced. Leaving aside the procedurals, serialization has been the standard model for dramas and adventures on TV since the breakthrough of Hill Street Blues, but few aside from Lost have been as adept at crafting episodes that stand as satisfying stories in and of themselves. (Credit the Lost team's choice to prop up each episode with flashbacks and flash-forwards that have their own distinct arcs.) Even in ER's first few seasons, when it was one of the best dramas on TV, how many individually memorable episodes did the series produce? Yet mention the title alone of many Lost episodes, and fans can usually recall the basic details of either the flashback or the on-island action.
Consider the six episodes I watched this week to wrap up Season Three:
"Catch-22" (a.k.a "Desmond's Choice") In a flashback, we learn how Desmond met Penny at the end of a brief stint as a wine-making monk (a gig he took mainly to get away from settling down with his ex-girlfriend), while on the island, Desmond leads Charlie to what he's foreseen as a grisly but necessary death. In the end, Desmond chooses to save Charlie from his fate yet again, even if it means never reuniting with Penny.
"D.O.C." Sun finds out that she's having Jin's baby and we find out why it matters to her, as we flashback to the early days of their marriage, when she was so in love with him that she paid off (and threatened) his whore of a mother.
"The Brig" Locke learns that The Others see him as their potential savior from the petty tyrannies of Ben, but will only follow him if he proves his strength by killing his father. When he can't, he enlists Sawyer's help, never letting Sawyer know that the man they're going to see is the one who messed up Sawyer's life.
"The Man Behind The Curtain" The origin of Benjamin Linus, complete with a snapshot of life on the island in the Dharma days, and scenes from "the purge."
"Greatest Hits" Charlie prepares to accept his fate by thinking back to the five happiest days of his life.
"Through The Looking Glass" We learn that Jack and Kate do someday get off the island, but that it was "a mistake," likely having to do with his decision to have Sayid, Jin and Bernard ambush The Others back at the beach (and Charlie and Desmond stop Ben's underwater signal-jamming), while he led the rest of the survivors up to the radio tower to call Naomi's freighter and get everybody rescued.
These six episodes contain three series' highs (those would be the last three episodes), as well as some that are less memorable (I'm lookin' at you, "D.O.C."), but the scope and variety of the whole set is pretty impressive. There's action, intrigue and romance there, set in locations ranging from Scotland to South Korea. It's easy to get hung up on the big picture with Lost, but it's just as important to take a moment every now and then to appreciate a show with a premise and a structure flexible enough to encompass multiple genres and cultural references. Even an average Lost is frequently the most surprising, smart and involving hour of TV that week.
I say all this because I have a feeling next week's Season Four finale–which I haven't seen yet, just so you know–is going to be divisive. Based on last week's set-up, and comments by Lindelof and Cuse, it looks like we're in for an action-packed two hours with lots of tense standoffs (a mode the show often has trouble with), some requisite filling-in-the-blanks on key mysteries from Season Three's finale, and an ending that's more likely to set up Season Five than to show us anything amazingly unexpected. I'm also picking up a vibe from Lindelof and Cuse's recent interviews that Season Five could be something quite different from what we've seen before on Lost. The major mysteries–like what the island is, and why all these people ended up on it–probably won't be cleared up until Season Six, which means Season Five will more than likely feature tangential quests and mysteries. I expect we'll be dealing mainly with Jack's attempts to get back to the island, as well as Ben and Sayid's war on Widmore. As for the island itself, I'm going to reach a bit and predict that we're going to get some kind of time shift that will move us several years ahead in the lives of those who remained behind (no matter "when" that may be). I predict no flash-forwards next year. The present will be the present again, and we'll be flashing back to what happened on the island during those years we skipped.
Whatever happens, there's bound to be a certain amount of stalling, followed by the requisite fan grumbling. Next year may test our patience. Or it may be brilliant. Either way, after watching the first three seasons again, I'm confident that Season Five will fit smoothly into the larger narrative, and set us off on the headlong race to the end of Season Six, which I'm betting will as action-oriented as these past couple of episodes have been. And then, as I've written before in this space, will come the true test, as we see whether Lost will still be credible when it becomes a straight-up pulp adventure, with no more secrets to reveal.
Alfred Hitchcock once said that the secret to creating a suspenseful scene is to put a bomb under a conference table and never let it explode. But with the way Lost is structured, every now and then the writers have to set off bombs. And sometimes when they do, they make messes. Nevertheless, the elements that make Lost special–the themes, the diverse characters, and the promise that any given week we'll see something astonishing–keep crawling from the wreckage.
*For fun, here's what I wrote about Lost back in April of 2006 in that "Perils Of Serialization" post: "Depending on who you ask, this second season has either been painfully slow and stingy in comparison with the first, or crammed with so many potential 'answers' that the show's now further away from the finish line than it was at the end of last season. Personally I think the show's simmering along just fine, though it does go through stretches where it seems to be really getting somewhere (like the recent run, featuring the elusive Henry Gale, and that great Locke backstory episode), and then stretches where it seems to be merely rearranging the pieces on the board. Everyone seems to agree that for a show like this to work, the creators need to decide how many seasons they need to tell the story and then to start building slowly to the end, but while Lost's brain trust insists that they know where they're headed, they're unwilling to say how long it's going to take to get there, and there have been hints in some of their statements that they may really be just making it all up as they go along. Which, if true, could lead to a real disaster in a season or two, when they look over the heap of characters and subplots they've introduced and then try to figure out how to make them fit into a completed puzzle. The core problem with Lost is its structure, which balances the intimate flashback stories with the heightened conflict and weirdness on the island. Because of the jumping back-and-forth, the pacing sometimes seems out of whack. Plus the big blueprint keeps getting bigger with each flashback, with more to follow. The way things are going, it's going to take about ten seasons to bring everything to a logical conclusion and I don't know if I want to wait that long." What a difference two years make, yes?
*Something I've been wondering lately while watching all the crisscrossing of the island: Do you think the writing team has a rough map of the place somewhere in their conference room, just so they can figure out how long it takes to get places?
*Another question: Are there a set number of costumes for each character? I know they have a lot of O15 luggage to pick from, but after a few weeks I would guess their wardrobe would stabilize to about three or four outfits.
*There have been some jokey attempts by fans to create their own version of a proper Lost opening credits sequence, but I've got to say, when watching the show on DVD, the decision to forgo an opening pays off big time. It's so much easier to watch a bunch in a row when all you have to skip are the closing credits.
Clues, Coincidences & Crazy-Ass Theories
*A few notes on each of the six I watched this week .
"Catch-22" Will Brother Campbell be returning to this show at some point, if only to explain that picture on his desk? When Naomi arrives on the island, she claims a helicooter fell into the water, but this isn't true, is it? So what did fall in?
"D.O.C." This episode strongly implies that Jin's father is not his father (since his mother was a prostitute). Will we see the real father someday? Having been present at examinations and such through the gestation of two children, I have to give it up for Elizabeth Mitchell's convincing OB-speak when she's doing an ultrasound for Sun.
"The Brig" What do The Others know about Locke, and who told them? I like how Richard and Ben suggest that Locke needs to kill his dad as "a gesture of free will." They have curious notions of "free will" on this island.
"The Man Behind The Curtain" Judging by Locke and Ben's similar backstories, having a shitty childhood is a prerequisite for island leaderhip. There's a reference to a volcano on the island in this episode, and thus far only in this episode. Surely that won't go unexplored forever. What became of Annie? Why did Horace pay Roger 30 grand to come to the island and be a "work man?" Why is the ghost of Ben's mom on the island? So many new questions in this terrific episode. As much as some fans mocked "Tricia Tanaka Is Dead" at the time as an example of show wasting time, both the introduction of "Roger Workman" and Hurley's van in that episode turned out to be relevant to the arc of the season. Lends credence to the "shoplifting theory" of serialized storytelling that I've mentioned here before. Until you leave the store, you haven't done anything wrong.
"Greatest Hits" Was Nadia's mugging a "hero test" for Charlie? Is that how he ended up getting recruited to be one of the O15-ers? (Assuming that everyone on the plane is there for a reason, of course.) I love the scene where Charlie is mean to Hurley in order to keep him from going on the Looking Glass mission, and then runs after him for a goodbye hug. A well-earned tear-jerker moment, well-played by both actors.
"Through The Looking Glass" Watching this again, it's clever how the writers keep us thinking that Jack is "a hero" because of his efforts to save car crash victims, not because he's one of "The Oceanic Six." Jack's ex is pregnant, but who's the daddy? When Jack is asked if he's "friend or family" of the mysterious man in the coffin, he says "neither." I think that may narrow down the list of suspects. Locke is prepared to shoot Jack to prevent him from making his call, but he can't. Is that because the island's not done with Jack?
*See you all next week. Quick question: Would you rather I open up next week's comment thread before I finish my write-up, so you can start talking as soon as the episode ends, or would you rather wait until there's some written content to respond to?